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Archive for October, 2009

DSCN1850I’m a runner. I train and train and train, mostly on trails in the birch-covered hills of interior Alaska. The marathon is my favorite race. Long distance just seems to suit me. When I run in bear country I carry pepper spray. And yes, I’ve seen a bear or two when I’ve been out running. And, I’ve been turned in my tracks by moose countless times.

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But the most exciting run I’ve ever had was on the streets of New York.

I couple years ago my wife, Dana and I were in NYC for a conference. Her employer had sent her to the NCTE Conference and I had come along to attend the ALAN Conference—the Candy Land of YA. If you’ve been to ALAN you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t and you’re into YA you’ve got to check it out. I’ve attended five times.

But back to the run. We’d just gotten out of a taxi on the Upper East Side. We’d taken it across the park in the dark. 

“Did you get a receipt?” I asked. That was one of my jobs. To make sure the absent-minded professor got the proper documentation for her trip. The cab was still curbside so Dana opened the door, got a receipt, then turned to me and said, “Thanks.”

I nodded to Dana as I watched the cab’s service light go dark. Then it cruised down the Avenue and made a right turn. I’m not sure why I was watching that cab but I was. Then I saw Dana reach for her back pocket to pull her wallet out to tuck the receipt away.

She came up empty handed. “My wallet, it’s gone. Must be in the taxi.”

I abandoned her in a dead sprint. And no, I didn’t have my running shoes on. I had these ancient beauties on instead.

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By the time I reached the corner my lungs were burning. At the far end of the block I saw half a dozen taxis stopped at a red light. I picked up the pace, my eyes focused on the closest one. Yes, its service light was off.

Focus. Focus. Focus. Arms pumping. Legs churning as fast as I could make them. Luckily there were only a few pedestrians to dodge as the heels of my black dress shoes clicked on the sidewalk.

The traffic light turned green. I skidded to a stop next to the cab, knocked on the back window and then opened the door. I had no idea what this guy would think. Did cabbies carry weapons? I didn’t know.

“My wife,” I spit out between breaths, “dropped her wallet in the backseat.” I sucked more air. The driver just nodded, which I took as a sign that it was okay to search the seat. There in the far corner a rectangular cloth trophy bumped up from the vinyl.

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“Thanks,” I said.

The driver shook his head. “You’re lucky. She never would’ve seen that again.”

My heart pounded through my sweater and my toes burned with hot spots as a walked back down the street. How far had I sprinted? I didn’t know. Maybe a couple hundred yards. A quarter mile at the most. Far enough and hard enough that whoever sat next to me at dinner would need a clothespin for their nose.

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Your characters have traits. Maybe you’ve even written a bit of back-story about them to better understand who they are. I do that. Often it’s just a few pages; some of it ends up eye-droppered into the story and some of it is just for me.

Take a close look at your main character’s traits. Can you work into your story some unexpected but logical way for your character to take action? Can your character put a skill to use in a setting or situation where it’d be unexpected?

Can a mid-forties trail runner from Alaska wearing dress shoes he purchased in high school chase down a taxi cab with his wife’s wallet in it at night in New York City?

Unexpected but logical. That’s one of my writing mantras.

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Some years back, okay it was twenty years ago, I did a solo bike trip through the southwest. Sixteen hundred miles in six weeks. You know the deal, you load your mountain bike up with a tent and sleeping bag, and since it was winter I had some warm clothes and a cook stove. Anyway, one day I was feeling lousy. I had chills, a fever. Looking back on it I suspect I had a mild case of the Javelina Flu.

 I was pedaling my packed bike on a little used road overlooking a small river, searching for a place to pitch my tent. So, I turned down a dirt trail that I thought would lead to the river. I needed water as well as rest.

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trailIt was a keep-your-breaks-on steep trail that cut this way and that as it plunged toward the river. So what if I’d have to wheel my bike up the hill tomorrow or the next day. I just hoped it’d be a peaceful place to ride out the Flu and get my strength back.

At the bottom I rounded a bend and saw dogs. I counted seven of them sprawled in a flat spot by the river. They saw me and got up. Some growled, some howled, and they all started moving toward me. I stopped, and straddled the cross bar on my bike, glancing around in search of their owner. Surely someone had to be around. I mean, come on. Seven dogs. All together.

These short-haired, teeth-baring hounds were closing in on me and I couldn’t just turn my fully loaded mountain bike around and beat it back up the hill. In my weak condition it would be a challenge just to push the bike up the hill.  I wished there was another person with me, someone to take a stand with, but I was alone.

The dogs were twenty feet away now. I got off my bike and for a split second they paused, but then they kept coming.

I grabbed a handful of dirt and rocks and threw it at them. They paused again. And then advanced again. I threw more rocks. They paused. And then they advanced.

My head was pounding and my throat was sore. And I had a fever. I just wanted to  curl into my sleeping bag and rest. But for obvious reasons I couldn’t.

I turned my bike around and started wheeling it up the hill. I stopped every twenty feet or so to throw rocks, and that kept the dogs and their snarling jaws just far enough away. I’m not sure how long it took to get up that hill but when I finally made it to the main road the wild dogs retreated. Yeah, I felt like I’d been run over by a train but at least I was alive.

When you do revision you’re alone. Sure, maybe you’ve got notes from your critique partners, your editor or agent, but when you hunker down to do the work it’s just you.

And sometimes things look dire. Your manuscript is a mess of underdeveloped characters and hanging plot threads. And maybe you even think, I don’t know if I can do this. Maybe I’m just not good enough. It’d be easy to give up and let the wild dogs of self-doubt have their way with you. To let all the voices gang up on you until a pack mentality sets in and they take over, destroying you, ripping and tearing at your confidence until it’s dead.

The path might look steeper than it did when you cruised down it while writing your first-draft. Maybe you wrote yourself into a box canyon, and a recent landslide behind you has drastically altered the terrain. The trip back up isn’t going to be an easy turn-around where you just reverse a few things.

But every time you make that journey up Revision Road, every time you face the wild dogs of self-doubt without rolling over belly up, you’ll have that experience to draw on.  So, when the wild dogs of self-doubt start howling and snarling you can greet them, tell them that they are even welcome to stay for a while and have some chocolate, or a beer, but you won’t be letting them make a meal of you.

Instead, you’re going to keep working on that manuscript, rewrite it, change the point of view if necessary, develop your characters, and weave those plot threads together until they resemble a fine silk scarf.

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Seasonal Writing Disorder

If you read my previous post, A brief bio, you’ve probably realized that I’m an addict. An exercise addict.

When I resigned from my teaching job to write full-time I thought the long Alaskan winters would be perfect for writing.

Well, without the morning bike rides to work and then being blinded by fluorescent ceiling lights all day at school, (and participating in gym class), I got a little groggy. And then more groggy. In the middle of the morning (my most productive time), my eyes would just start closing. And my head would fall forward.

I was still managing to write some but my productivity was sinking like a scuttled ship in the Mariana Trench.

I’ve lived in Alaska for almost twenty years so you’d think I’d have noticed that it’s dark for twenty hours a day in the winter. And I had noticed, but it was usually with awe as rode my bike to school at thirty below under a full moon, or cross-country skied under the aurora.

After all these years I finally understood what the winter blues were—officially known as SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). I don’t know if I suffered from genuine SAD. I mean, I wasn’t I-wanna-kill-myself-depressed, and I could still get out of bed in the morning. But I wasn’t my usual, chipper-self. More like, a lethargic, almost-hibernating grizzly bear.

DSCN0702To deal with the problem I rubbed a mixture of shaved ice and cayenne pepper on my face. Just kidding. What I really did was sit in front of my wife’s light box, a sunlight simulator, for a half hour a day, and made sure I got outside in the middle of the day for a run, walk or ski. And, I took frequent breaks just to walk in circles on the deck, even if it was twenty or thirty below, to keep myself awake.

What does any of this have to do with writing? I could’ve used the winter blues as an excuse to slow down, to stop writing. To crawl into a hole, or under a rock. But I didn’t. Instead, that winter, I wrote a book. And that book, Placement, will be out on submission soon, thanks to my wonderful agent, Jennifer DeChiara.

So yeah, you’re gonna need breaks from writing. Take a week off or a month or a year. Do what you want to do. Excluding emergencies, physical limitations, and other commitments, you decide when to write, or not.

What I do is make it a conscious choice: Not, I can’t write today because… instead, I am choosing not to write today because. . .

Sounds pretty basic, I know. But it’s easy to make excuses not to write. This winter will be my first on the treadmill, writing. I suspect I’ll have more energy. But if not, I’ll sit in front of that light box, and periodically walk around on the deck to freeze myself awake if that’s what it takes.

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How I started writing YA

I taught English in an alternative high school for fifteen years and thanks to my students, I started writing. When I’d read them a short story or a whole novel (yeah, I read whole novels out loud to my class), we’d stop at certain points and they’d write their own scenes using characters from the story. My students were having so much fun doing this that I wanted to get in on it, so I started writing scenes, too. Soon I started writing my own stories and was writing before school, after school and on the weekends, and all summer long. My head was spinning with so many stories that I left my teaching job so I could write full-time.

Where I live and have lived.

I live in Fairbanks, Alaska.

 Alaska, you say? How did a boy from Indiana end up in the far north?

 Between semesters in college I went to Alaska to work in the salmon canneries. I worked on the slime line fifteen hours a day scraping blood and guts from dead fish. But no, that’s not why I moved to Alaska, not because of a love for fish guts. Instead, it was the open, wild space I got to play in on an occasional day off. Free flowing rivers. Tide water glaciers. Bears. I’d been bitten by the Alaska-bug, not to be mistaken for the mosquito—that’s our state bird.

But I didn’t just stay in Alaska that summer. I finished college and then wandered around the country for five years—Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Idaho, California—working as a Naturalist in outdoor education programs. (I had an English Degree but these programs hired me anyway.) You know, the kind of program where you and your classmates spend a week hiking around during the day, having campfires at night, and then sleeping in cabins, all the while trying not to get eaten by bears and mountain lions. In my five years as a Naturalist no one got eaten by anything. I got bit by an alligator lizard, but that’s another story.

One of the benefits of working as a Naturalist was the time off. I had a winter break and a summer break. One winter I did a sixteen hundred mile solo mountain bike trip through the deserts of Nevada, California and Arizona. Most summers I headed to Alaska where I led backpacking trips for teenagers part of the time, and went sea kayaking the rest of the time.DSCN0949

 Settling down. Sort-of.

After a while I got tired of moving around. I wanted a place I could call home. So, one summer when I went to Alaska, I just stayed and got a job teaching English in an Alternative School.

And then I met my wife, Dana. Well, she wasn’t my wife yet but soon she would be. She’s a teacher, too. And she likes sea kayaking and backpacking, too. And reading and writing. We are perfect for each other.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, I don’t spend a lot of time sitting around, or even that much time inside. When I was a teacher, I used to ride my bike to school. Even in the winter. When the temperature would drop to fifty below zero, I’d still ride my bike. It was my daily adventure. My students told me I was crazy. Maybe I am a little crazy. I mean, after all, you have to be a little crazy just to live in Alaska.

Another thing I like to do is run marathons. So a few times a week after riding my bike home, I’d go out for a training run.

 Where I write

When I started writing full-time I spent a lot of time sitting. And after a year or so my body started to rebel. My back ached. My shoulders collapsed forward and stayed that way. And my neck—you don’t even want to know. The physical therapist who tried to loosen it up said, this is the tightest neck I’ve ever worked on. It’s hard as cement. Ouch!

I didn’t know writing could be so hazardous. I mean, I’d survived ten foot waves in my sea kayak in the middle of Prince William Sound, avoided polar bears in the Arctic (luckily they were busy feeding on a whale carcass or I may have ended up as their lunch), and lost my footing in the mountains and slid forty feet down a steep slope. I landed on my face and was a little bruised but healed up pretty quickly.  But writing—in a chair for hours and hours on end—was brutal.

I had a treadmill collecting dust in a little room upstairs so I built a desk-top for it. And now, most of my writing time is also walking time. My back and my neck and shoulders are delighted. My friends sometimes ask: “Paul, how many words per mile did you average today?”DSCN1463

Some other things I do

Reading

I read lots of books. Mostly young adult fiction but a fair amount of non-fiction, too. When I taught school most of my students were reluctant readers so I read many very good books just to find a few that my students would connect with. And all that reading was the best education I could’ve had as a writer. So, if you want to write then read, read, read. Never ever stop reading.

 Fishing

Even though I spent a couple summers up to my neck in fish guts, salmon guts specifically, I still love to eat salmon. In Alaska you have lots of opportunities to catch salmon if you are willing to give it a try. One way to catch salmon is by dip netting in the Copper River. You hold a big net on a long pole in the river and you wait until a fish swims into your net. It’s not as easy as it sounds. The river is full of glacial silt so you can’t see below the surface. And the current moves along like a freight train. So, it’s all about feeling the ding in your net and then pulling it up and out before the fish gets away. Then you’ve got to wrestle the fish out of the net and club it on the head. When the fish are running strong my wife and I can catch thirty salmon in two hours. Once she had three fish in her net at the same time. Dip netting is kind of like lifting weights nonstop while balancing on a narrow ledge.

 Gardening

Produce travels a long way to get to Alaska and often it’s not in the greatest shape. I mean, do you like tomatoes the consistency of sandy mush? Or carrots that taste like cardboard? Me neither. Plus, it takes a lot of energy to ship stuff to Alaska. So, yeah, we have a big garden. And a seven-foot tall fence to keep out the moose.

Field Biology

One summer the Fish and Wildlife Service hired me to do stream and lake surveys on the remote and roadless Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I got to fly around in a helicopter every day and tell the pilot where to land so my crew and I could do our surveys. See, you really can do just about anything with an English Degree.

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